AUSTRALIA’S youth justice system is under extreme pressure.
In the past few months incarcerated juveniles have rioted in Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria, with serious incidents in the Northern Territory.
On November 10, up to 20 young offenders at Townsville’s Cleveland Detention Centre went on a night-long rampage that forced prison staff into hiding.
Some sustained serious injuries and were evacuated in an ambulance flanked by police in riot gear.
Some of the offenders climbed onto a roof and began demanding KFC, drugs and alcohol, and most bizarrely, refusing to come down unless Barack Obama was re-elected United States President.
A few days later, a weekend of anarchy gripped the Melbourne Youth Justice Centre, as a teenage mob set about smashing windows, destroying locks and doors, tearing away electrical wiring and ripping out state-of-the-art security cameras.
Some teenagers smashed through the ceiling of an inmate who did not want to take part and beat him.
Staff trying to regain control even had to change their communications channel because they believed inmates had got hold of a radio and were listening in.
One of the chief agitators was a 15-year-old who was born in the juvenile justice system.
He has been in and out of the youth justice system since the age of 10.
The riots have raised serious questions and sparked an intense, emotional debate within legal and justice circles – how to stop the hardcore violence; how to instill a sense of respect and self-discipline; and more widely, what are the chances for these youths returning safely into the community?
Youth Off The Streets founder and chief executive officer Salesian Father Chris Riley is one advocate who is preaching to radical change current practices.
He is a leading advocate of introducing restorative justice as an alternative to punishment.
“Of the juvenile offenders released from prison in 2013, seventy-six per cent re-offended within the next two years,” Fr Riley said.
“How can we expect our young people to improve and become upstanding citizens, when we lock them away and doom them to a life of being stuck in a cycle of crime?
“Punishing, belittling, humiliating young people escalates levels of violence. I’ve been saying that for 20 years now.
“I’m not saying they don’t have to do jail time if it’s serious, but during that process we have to be engaged with these young people in a different way.”
Fr Riley said prison time escalated recidivism, drug use and alcohol use, and escalated anti-social behaviour, whereas the restorative justice approach did exactly the opposite – it reduced the risk factors.
Under our criminal justice system crime is treated as a violation of the law and state, effectively causing a divide between victim and restoration.
“Restorative justice treats a crime as a violation of people and relationships – through this justice offenders are forced to acknowledge their actions and the impact it has on victims, society and themselves,” Fr Riley said.
“I have seen first-hand the benefits of restorative justice.
“I’ve worked with troubled kids for 45 years and never been assaulted and very few staff have been assaulted during that period by anyone because we use restorative and strength-based interventions where we build up rather than knock down.
“Not only does restorative justice see positive outcomes for the offender as they are rehabilitated, but also the victim who sees things put right.
“Restorative justice is the only method that allows the offender to see the impact they have on the victim and the community.
“After being confronted with the consequences of their actions, offenders are made to see the damages they have caused first hand, and allow victims to voice their issues and needs for the first time.
“The criminal justice system strips this voice from the victims.”
Fr Riley oversees the operation of more than 35 programs that employ 200 staff including youth workers and involve more than 400 volunteers.
He has implemented innovative behaviour modification strategies to help young people deal with a history of trauma, abuse and neglect.
Fr Riley said restorative justice was proven to engage offenders back into education, reduce drug and alcohol use, reduce recidivism, and encourage the community to take part in the justice system.
“The key to safety in our community is not locking away offenders, but helping them to become productive and valued members of society,” he said.